The personal statement is one of the most challenging aspects of your application package. Many people find it difficult to write about themselves, while others may be raging narcisists but incapable of finding a way to maturely distinguish themselves from the pack. While the personal statement, in 99% of cases, can’t gain you admission to the school of your dreams, it can probably help your application package and, if done incorrectly, it can certainly hurt it. In this article I will try to explain how to approach the personal statement and provide some general guidelines for how to get started on it. Obviously the work must be your own, but there are some basic principles that should be followed.
Some logistical notes.
1. Write early, write often. To those of you who have PMed me asking how to stretch my LSAT study plan into a year - 1) relax, 2) start working on your personal statement. It is impossible to underestimate how difficult of an exercise this is for most people.
2. Whenever you get an idea, write it down. Then try to turn it into a a paragraph. You don’t have to start with the introduction. I figured out what I wanted to say and then worked backward from the conclusion of my personal statement.
3. You’ll have to go through many drafts and many different ideas. This is part of the process, and it can actually be kinda fun. View it as a learning experience about yourself.
4. Put your LSAC # and Name in a header in the top right corner. If you’re anal, like me, also put your social security number. Number your pages.
5. This leads me to a point I forgot. Buy Anna Ivey’s law school admissions book. Good information on how to write personal statements from someone who knows.
1. Buy a book that has a substantial number of law school personal statements in it. I used “55 Harvard Law Personal Statements That Worked.” This particular book also provides guidance from the authors of the Harvard student newspaper, but take their advice with a grain of salt. What you’re mostly looking for in reading other people’s personal statements is effective writing and subject matter. You’re (probably) an intelligent person - when reading the essays look for styles and formats that seemed to make the person interesting. Watch for effective transition words and sentences. Look for syntax that makes the essay flow and adds to general readability. You’ll find that some of the very best personal statements aren’t amazing because of the content - they are excellent pieces of writing and they make the author come alive beyond their numbers and resume lines. You can also read personal statements on TLS - there are some excellent ones and some weak ones, but both are effective for helping you figure out how to communicate your ideas. The weak ones might be even more useful - figure out why they were weak, how they could have been improved and then remember not to make the same mistakes on your PS.
2. Buy “Elements of Style”. Learn it. Live it. Love it. Enough said.
3. George Orwell has some good things to say on writing:
a. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
b. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
c. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
d. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
e. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Do not try to sound sophisticated by using big words, excessively long, complex sentences, or 3 words when 1 will do. Flowery, bloated writing that requires a dictionary to read is out. Conciseness, clarity and efficiency of communication is in. If you use long sentences, alternate short ones in to add to readability. If you have a habit of being verbose, be very careful not to do this on the PS. When you can be active, do it. Don't say something is happening - describe it happening. This is especially important in the introduction - stories or descriptions of an event are amazing for introductions. They hook the reader and make them want to keep reading, which is crucial when an adcomm is on their 3000th essay of the admissions cycle and they are fading fast.
3. Begin brainstorming for ideas on what makes you, you. You don’t have to have worked in the Amazon for 3 years helping orphan heroin addicts learn calculus to be an interesting person. One of the best personal statements I read used the exact same format for every sentence and never revealed a single concrete fact about the author - it was in the synergy of this compilation of small personality traits that the author became real. This is what you want to accomplish. Without flat out begging for attention, you want to convince the reader that you are special, that you are interesting, and that you are going to bring something to the class besides a high LSAT score and/or GPA.
4. Find someone that you trust to read it over for you. This can be awkward, I know, but it’s really, really useful. I used “intricate” instead of “intrinsic”, and it wasn’t caught until the 7th or 8th editor looked my PS over. I’m sure it wouldn’t have kept me out of the schools I got in to, but it’s definitely something you want to avoid. You should also be soliciting advice on the general attitude that you convey in the article. It’s hard to write something geared toward a person who knows very little about you - sometimes you will assume knowledge on their part that they might not have. This can get you in trouble. For example, a tongue in cheek comment poking fun at yourself for a slight character flaw can be construed not as humility, but as reflective of a more damaging or harmful character flaw. This is bad. Finding someone else who knows nothing about you (TLS is great for this) to read your PS is a good way to catch mistakes like this.
5. It would be silly of me to tell you what to write your PS on, so I won't (though I will tell you what not to write it on below). You need to figure that out for yourself, and it is through the process of reading many others personal statements and brainstorming regularly that you will figure out a meaningful way to express yourself and your desire to attend law school. Just remember that the quality of your PS has less to do with the precise subject matter and more to do with how you express yourself and how you use the subject matter as a vehicle to convey who you are and why you are a good candidate for law school. This must be done subtly - coming out and saying it will ruin the effect - but if you keep working on it and don't become complacent, it can definitely be done. This ties back in with the starting early idea I mentioned earlier. When you've finished the LSAT and the rest of your application package, you're going to be burnt out, sick of the process and ready to hit Submit. Working on a PS is the last thing most of you will want to do. That's why I emphasize the need to start early so much. If you haven't started yet and you're applying for this upcoming cycle, start now.
6. The conclusion. Many feel a tie in between the rest of your statement and why you want to go to law school is necessary here. This can work in some cases (someone who worked in finance for 5 years and now wants to get a law degree focused on tax to jump to the next level in their field) but in most cases it's counterproductive and lessens the impact of your essay. Subtlety is key. Use the conclusion to take away a lesson that you learned, or wrap up a story from the introduction, or explain (subtly) how the content of the rest of the personal statement has impacted you. Leaving it a bit open ended is good for a few reasons. The reader can take away what they want to from the rest of your statement. Tying it up neatly into why you want to attend law school precludes this and can be counterproductive. If they've decided you are an interesting person based on what they have taken away from your PS, then in the conclusion you point them toward a different idea, you've just shot yourself in the foot. It's also flat out unnecessary to say "and this is why I want to attend law school." It's a personal statement geared toward law school admissions. They know you're trying to convince them that you are an interesting person and a good candidate. Pointing this fact out via a neatly wrapped up "I'm a good candidate" conclusion is unnecessary and something the majority of applicants will do. You want to stand apart from the crowd, and this is a good way to do it.
Things to Avoid (generally)
1. Discussing the law. With some exceptions (i.e. those who have worked in the legal field for a while) it's a bad idea to discuss anything legal. The reader will know more than you, and you risk sounding preachy or boring.
2. The travel story. Adcomms read a few hundred "I traveled to Africa/Asia to help people and now I want to be a lawyer to save the world" essays every cycle. Unless yours is truly unique (i.e. teaching orphan heroin addicts calculus in the Amazon) avoid this format. You may have a truly amazing experience, and if you can make it work do it, but most travel essays come across as trite.
3. "Why I want to be a lawyer." Particularly dangerous for undergrads who, for the most part, really don't know why they want to be a lawyer. Avoid it.
4. The resume personal statement. Applications will ask you to list your accomplishments, and for most schools you'll be submitting a resume as well. Listing your resume in essay form is very, very, very bad. You're boring the adcomm and wasting an opportunity to make yourself come alive in their eyes. You also look lazy and uninspired. Don't do it.
This is what I’ve got for now. I’ll probably add more later today but I’m off to LR&W now.
Many years ago TLS held a content competition. The competition is no longer active, but this forum keeps going.
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